Economy featured

On Localism and watch out for the next recession

February 28, 2024

To underline Friday’s assertion that everything is falling apart, perhaps led by our economy, in his weekly news summary, Justin at shared links to two hypertension-provoking articles. Both were written and published by what we would normally consider conservative experts, those who are more inclined to cheer-lead despite all evidence to the contrary than to detail that evidence. The first is written by Desmond Lachman and was published in Barron’s last week (Yes, that Barron’s). The title says it all: “A Global Recession Wave Is Building Steam“. But then under that title, the first paragraph continues:

The world economy is in trouble. Not only are there clear indications of a substantial slowdown in a number of the world’s key economies, there are also growing signs that we could be on the cusp of a worldwide wave of commercial property loan defaults. Those defaults could put great strain on the global financial system and trigger a meaningful global economic recession.

(Which of course begs the question: what is a meaningless global economic recession, and have we maybe been in one for decades now?)

Does this sound like the staid Barron’s we all know and deplore? Are they really saying that commercial lenders and borrowers have maybe overvalued property and resources to the extant that they have created hundreds of billions of dollars (at least) in loans that will never be repaid, hundreds of billions of dollars that have, essentially, no material value or basis, and that this lack of real worth is now catching up with the entire global economic system in ways that might possibly send it all back to financial fantasy-land by way of the toilet (and a good deal of pain)? Surely not…

Meanwhile, Justin also shared a headline and this delightful little graphic from The Daily Mail:

Note that this chart was created by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a non-partisan and non-profit organization under the auspices of the Congressional Budget Office, a governmental body charged with knowing exactly how our government spends its dollars. Also note that The Daily Mail and its readership are not known for bleeding heart liberalism or really for any ability to critique neoliberal policies. (The New World Encyclopedia puts it this way: a “…stereotypical Daily Mail reader is characterized as an insular, aspiring middle-class conservative who lacks the intelligence to read…”. Well, then…)

Yet this article is graphically showing that we, as a nation-state, are now spending more on the interest on our loans — loans mostly from other nation-states — than we are spending on nearly any other single budget item. This is equivalent to spending more on your mortgage interest — or perhaps more like credit card interest — than you do on whatever that credit has paid for. Imagine your house payment for a minute, if you will. If you spent money like the representatives of the US government, you would be paying more on the interest each month than you do on principle. Forever. You would never be able to pay off that loan. Note that you also never gain any value from the money spent on that interest. It does not house you. It is not available to spend on keeping the house viable nor on any other actual need. It is gone. (Did it ever exist?)

Of course, these are projections. We have not yet reached that point and we may not. Given the first headline cited above, our global economy might also just go belly up this year and render all loans and interest so much meaningless digital drivel. (Which is sort of already true… in actuality…) But if things stay on course, then this “means by the end of 2024, interest payments will be the second largest government expenditure. Only Social Security will be a bigger cost.” (Tilly Armstrong,, 20 February 2024)

This graphic also says other things about our spending… The total debt is $34 trillion; the total interest looks to be around $840 billion. So we’re paying an average interest rate of about 2.5% on our loans. We made some pretty crappy deals on this lending. Considering that growth, even in its most fanciful forecasts, is “supposed to be” around 3%, this means some pretty slim margins on ever being able to raise the revenues to pay back these loans. And again, this is just the expense of paying back the loan. It has gained us no material benefit. This is merely the cost of credit, of spending more money than we have in current material or labor value.

This is only one of the many costs of overshoot.

Apologies for that mini lesson in macroeconomics… I’ve been rather grumpy lately. This is the sort of thing that resonates right now. This experience in deep-cover investigative journalism that I call “my job” is depressing me. And I work for a community bank, a savings and loan, one that does not even offer investment options, one that has a professed goal of serving all Vermonters, rich and poor alike. Think It’s a Wonderful Life… that’s my daily world right now.

I’m also a bit tired of the weather. Or perhaps it’s not the actual weather, but the ridiculously wrong weather forecasting. Believe me, I know all the difficulties in trying to make predictions when normal is a rapidly moving target. (I worked with those mathematical models, you know.) But could we at least work a bit harder to talk about what is actually happening and base our forecasts on that?

Sunday was a good example. It was windy and cold all week. It got sort of warmish, in the 40s (°F), on Thursday. But we woke to unpredicted snow on Friday, and then the temperature plummeted. It was 11°F on Saturday morning and the temperature continued to fall. Now, earlier in the week, there was this idea that Saturday’s chill would be brief and Sunday should see a rise in temperature (based on what? no idea…). So as of Sunday morning, the forecast for Sunday was a temperature range of 25°F to 38°F. On WeatherUnderground, which theoretically ought to be based on crowd-sourced real-time data, this forecast range was displayed right above the actual temperature at 7am — which was 0°F. The temperature barely climbed as high as the predicted low on Sunday.

As I said, I understand the difficulties in prediction, but couldn’t we try to do a bit better at least while working with present conditions? If I wasn’t the type to obsessively pay attention to the actual thermometer, I might leave the house with only a jacket, “knowing” that the day would be relatively warm later on. If it was a workday, I would not have enough clothing to protect my body from the chill on the drive home. If weather forecasting is a thing at all, we probably ought to be able to expect close to accurate predictions for the next 24 hours, shouldn’t we? Otherwise, it’s meaningless.

I am not sure that this is intentional. For one thing, chronically incorrect forecasting benefits nobody. It’s not even good gaslighting. It’s simply and evidentially wrong. It is probably another manifestation of “nothing works now”.

Well, baking bread works. Making yogurt works. Reading works… mostly. That’s how I try to spend my non-wage-work hours. This is what I sat down to write about. But then I made the mistake of reading email and other thoughts surfaced…

On Localism

Sometimes I get the feeling that people are patting me on the head. Metaphorically, anyway… There seems to be a strain of thought even among those who are advocates for this planet that choosing to live local is nothing but fluffy bunny, airy fairy, new age quaintness. The Real Issue™ is energy blindness. Or lack of political will. Or stupid men with outsized compensatory trucks… (Ok, maybe that’s me… sorry…) Yes, those are problems… But they aren’t really addressable. These are just talking points. You can’t do anything about Political Will. He’s an immaterial crutch for the bloviating classes… And blindness is generally an irremediable congenital condition (though it can also be the result of trauma, as is probably the case with our culture… yet it’s still irreversible). As to the truck thing… well, short-guy syndrome has led to all sorts of bad…

But this blog is not an exercise in being adorable. It’s not even about moral correctness (which is not at all the same as political correctness…). Though it is certainly ecological correctness. Living local is a biophysical necessity. Globalism and all the race-to-the-bottom exploitation that it entails is an existential threat to billions of lives, to life in general. And it is not just extinction — which is an ongoing natural process — it is murder, genocide, intentional and premeditated acts of ecocide.

Yeah, strong words. But when someone tells me that meeting needs simply and locally is just a Luddite fantasy for the privileged class playing house, then I think it is time for those words to be unleashed, for the gloves to come off, for the blood and rot underneath it all to be exposed.

Our present crisis was created with intent and it continues to be actively reproduced using a good deal of our resources and labor just to force its existence on a generally unwilling world. Our culture requires the use of force at all scales to impose our wants. Our culture forces the world to suffer our wants, to be less than they could be, less than they world be without our constant, violent intercession.

It is more than climate change. Yes, every shipped thing is tonnes of carbon sent into the atmosphere, to hang about up there absorbing heat and causing chaos on time scales that are permanent relative to most animal lives. And yes, every shipped thing — including you, if you tend to travel about — is still shipped using fossil fuel, and this will not change because we do not have access to another energy source that is both dense and light enough to move about. But climate change is just the beginning, almost inconsequential in the history, magnitude and scope of our culture’s destructive force — which has been ongoing for centuries longer than we’ve had access to petroleum. (Though, yes, that did cause this recent spike in erratic weather forecasting…)

We are and have been concentrating poisons of all kinds, physical and metaphorical, for hundreds of years — and we don’t even seem to be aware of it. Consider plastic. Yes, this is a recent thing, but it is typical and much in keeping with past industrial poisoning, especially in the ways we don’t consider it. How many people know that plastic comes to us as a highly toxic by-product of petroleum refining? How many people know that it was intentionally foisted upon the world as a way to wrest more profitability from each drop of oil even though industry knew it was poisonous and ultimately trash?

These synthetic hydrocarbon compounds contain the worst elements found in naturally occurring petroleum deposits, and these normally diffuse elements are concentrated to human-scale levels of toxicity in the oil refining process. These are the things that we don’t want gumming up our engines. So, of course, let’s build clothing, drinking straws, make-up, replacement human body parts out of them, says industry. And we don’t say anything back. Even as we are all dying of cancer and watching endocrine dysfunction destroy our ability to live and reproduce. We don’t question it. We accept this violence. It is part of our water…

But we can recycle it! says industry. In fact, I’ve seen environmentalists claim that we can recycle all of it. What’s holding us back? Apparently, Political Will… But this is impossible, and not just politically. It is thermodynamically, to say nothing of technologically, impossible. There is no process that does not produce waste. There is no material system that does not undergo entropy. So there is no change that is 100% efficient. Or even in the high 90s (though cell division does come close).

But with plastic it’s much worse. Industry blames us, our reluctance to send all the plastic back for recycling. And this seems true. Some places see as little as 9% of their plastic waste stream heading to the recycling plant, for myriad reasons ranging from incorrect sorting and cleaning to lack of facilities in a given region. But mostly it is not our fault. Recycling rates are abysmal because recycling is not profitable, full stop. It can’t be. It is an energetically intensive and therefore expensive process, that requires vast amounts of material transport, and produces… less than was taken in… Not only less, but lower quality. Higher in toxicity. Lower in durability and strength. You get less true material value out of recycling than you have to put into it. This is the real problem in recycling. It is not political; it is real.

Even of what is recyclable and recycled there is less returned, and what is returned is degraded in quality. It’s not just that yield rates are less than 100%, so that when you put one properly washed and sorted milk jug into the number 2 bin, you can only expect to get 3/4 of a milk jug back out — at most! It’s that you get a lower grade of plastic out. You may get acrylic thread to make fancy dresses for the elite. More likely you’ll get a few flimsy plastic bags that can’t be recycled at all at the end of their short life-cycle. And what is lost in the process is toxic waste. Carbon into the atmosphere, carcinogens and endocrine disrupters into the soil and water. And into you.

And it is forever. On the macro-scale and at time-spans relevant to human lives, what plastic is in existence now is permanent. However, it is still breaking down, leaching those poisonous compounds into the air and water and soil. Consider vinyl siding. It will be the physical detritus, the memory of a house, long after the people have abandoned it and the wood framing has rotted away. But it will not be pristine. It will fade, usually quite quickly. It will erode. It will be covered in odd pits and cracks. It will have lost material over time. And because that material is so especially toxic and persistent (which are related chemical qualities, by the way), it will kill living bodies, beginning with the tiniest, and it will concentrate quickly with the cycling of materials through larger living bodies. It does not dissipate. It binds strongly to carbon-based tissues. And as it is so novel to the world, so synthetic and strange, there are no biological protections against it. Cellular defenses don’t even see it, and if they could, they are powerless to metabolize it, because it kills on contact — as is true of most poisons.

Now, consider that plastic is how we do globalism. It is what is made. It is how it is made. It is how it is transported around the globe. Plastic is a fairly good metaphor for our economy. Deadly, ubiquitous, and generally bound for the landfill — carrying along everything in its path.

This is us. This is our economy. It is plastic. It is global transport. It is hydrocarbons causing climate chaos. But it is mostly violence that we offload onto others. Our culture’s foundation is exploitation and appropriation. Rape and theft, to use less politic language. This is not metaphorical. It is actual and ongoing. It is taking land and resources and dumping waste. It is extracting labor from people. It is abuse. It is violence. It is force. It is the opposite of living.

We might splutter incoherently at that. Not everything is violence, we might say. Look at the shiny hotels and sparkling flows of money that come from tourism. Surely there is no violence in that.

Consider Acapulco. Here is a place that was an actual Eden, and under our influence it has become immiseration. At the superficial and obvious level, land and resources were appropriated to build hotels and fast food chains and shopping centers filled with foreign goods. People who once proudly met their own needs now clean toilets and serve foreign food to foreign people. All this change has left physical scars on the place and its peoples. But the worst damages are invisible. The worst damage is the devaluation of what is local, what is native to that place. What is Acapulco is deemed worthless — foodways, traditions, homes, languages, lives. None of that is valued as highly as the dollars spent by foreigners on their imported foreign things. Moreover, while Acapulco is worth less, it costs more to live there now, far more than the pittance wages we pay people to clean toilets and serve food. But because they spend all their waking hours trying to earn the dollars to pay for their lives, they no longer can spend time tending to their own needs — or even remembering what those needs were. Did we really used to eat beans with every meal? Not shrimp? How rude we were…

You go to Acapulco to escape your own life, to relieve the ennui of your days. You go and you eat shrimp. You may speak a few words of garbled Spanish in order to order your dinner — and expect to be praised for such singular efforts — but you don’t know the language. You don’t bother with that. It is worthless beside the English that you require from the locals. You sleep in a hotel with Egyptian cotton sheets cleaned by local hands that you never see. You never see the small lives beyond the resort. You do not see Acapulco. You do not smell it or taste it. You do not experience it. You force it to experience you. You force it to be what you want it to be — an escape from your boring life of privilege. Where you probably eat shrimp every week and speak English every waking minute and sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets that you may or may not wash with your own hands. You force Acapulco to be less than it is, less than it could be, less that it would be without you.

And what does Acapulco get from you? Do they choose this trade? No… they don’t want the pittance wages and the slum lives that pittance buys. They don’t want the crap shrimp they cook or any of the other junk they produce for our markets, even if we paid them enough to buy it. They don’t want our foreign culture, our foreign language, our foreign ideas and lifeways that are utterly incompatible with their lives and their place. They want their healthy lands and bodies back. They want their freedom to choose. They want their time, their lives. They want us to take our foreignness and leave — but maybe clean up the disaster before we go. Though… I think most are probably like the mothers of recalcitrant teenagers… Just go. I’ll take care of the mess myself. Because that way it gets done and done well.

And tourism is a relatively benign poison…

We read about non-Western governments giving no protection to land and laborers as if these cultures were not made of humans with the same needs and desires as us, as if these leaders freely chose to abuse their peoples and lands, as if we did not force them at gunpoint over a very long and violent history of coercively removing obstructions to The Market, barriers to Progress, limits on the Western Frontier, curtailment on expansionism and extraction of resources and labor for Western profit. The British Empire fought wars with much of Asia to force those distant and multitudinous countries to allow Western merchants to sell highly addictive and destructive drugs far from Western lands and bodies — knowing full well that opium destroys people, destroys cultures, destroys communities, destroys life. Britain knew the opium trade killed indiscriminately and pervasively. Hence the need for a market far from British soil.

Or consider diamonds… trinkets for rich white fingers… (oh, but diamond has industrial applications also… yeah…) We not only finance and perpetuate the trade when we go to the jeweler, we provide the guns that force human communities, that force human bodies, into this terrible — and tragically needless — “industry”.

We force people to take on all the violence in our culture, to manufacture all our junk, to process all our waste, to be the object of our exploitation. China does not have poor worker protections because it is singularly and bizarrely abusive of its peoples. It has no worker protections because we forced them to remove those barriers to profits. Protected workers cost too much. That’s why industry goes to China, after all, to avoid privileged and protected bodies. Similarly, Egypt does not accept mountains of toxic refuse for any benefit to Egypt or Egyptians. They are forced. We force them to take our permanently poisonous trash. Through trade laws and stacked systems. But also through sheer physical violence. If a country says no to our rapacious want, that country risks immediate destabilization and destruction. Ask Argentina what happens when Western desires are denied…

We create these systems to force what we don’t like about our culture onto distant bodies and lands. We put strip mines in impoverished communities who cannot fight back and, more importantly, where we will never go. We put garment-dyeing factories near foreign waters so that we don’t have to see, smell, drink and bathe in poisonous pink rivers. We take resources and labor hours from bodies and lands we don’t know. And yet… it always cycles back to us. Your just-in-time delivery from Amazon equals deaths and destruction in Asia equals permanent increases in planetary toxicity and instability equals harm to you. With every package. (And don’t even get me started on Amazon’s shocking abuse of its own employees… I’m just talking about what Amazon ships, not how it ships.)

Every time you do not shop local, every time you spread your wants further than your human-scaled portion of the world, every time you take from Others, you are destroying other lives, other places and ultimately your own future. This is the irony in our blindness. Destruction doesn’t stay over there. This is one planet, one continuous biophysical organism. What happens over there will cycle through the whole planet right back to here, to you. Hence climate change. But also… this is how we are chewing away at our own culture. If it is acceptable to cause violence over there to bodies we don’t know, then it is acceptable to cause violence over here to bodies we don’t know — or just don’t like for any imagined reason. Violence is acceptable social discourse. This is what we teach our children when we take them to Acapulco and make them eat shrimp while the locals wash our laundry and deal with our toxic plastic waste.

Sorry for the screed…

It’s just that I’m tired of people thinking that “live local” is just cuteness. It is not cute. It is hard and necessary work. It is the only weapon we have against the monstrosity of globalized violence. It is a fight for our lives. It is a fight for life against all the anti-biotic destruction this culture unleashes on the only planet we know, the only known place that supports life, the only place we can live.

My shopping habits are not cute, nor are they easy. I have to do all the work and deal with all the destruction inherent in being a living being — and minimize that — in addition to doing the work necessary to pay for my right to live in this culture. I spend my non-wage-work hours producing my own food, producing my own cleaning supplies and clothing, mending and propping up all the things that go into a home, all from local sources. When I buy my needs, I buy them locally produced, not merely imports sold by Vermonters. This is not easy. I am exhausted by this effort. There is never enough time for all this work on top of the wasted hours that I am forced to give to employment.

(And no, nobody wants to do wage work… It benefits nobody; it harms a great deal; it takes living time away from every working body. Is this really so hard to comprehend? We don’t call it work because they pay us to do it… we call it work because they force us to do it — and then accept wages that are always less than our productive output.)

I am trying so hard to minimize harm, but I am losing. Always. Even in Vermont which has far more local infrastructure than most places. Because even in Vermont it is still cheaper to offload your violence on Elsewhere and import needs than it is to produce a living using local materials and labor. This culture erodes any local capacity to produce by making local products more expensive than cheap imports. Every time we buy something from Elsewhere, we make it harder to buy anything from Here. Because that local productive capacity is chipped away with every cheap thing that is bought in place of what we can source from our own place.

And then people call localism a life-style choice…

No… this is not a choice. I did not choose this. I did not and do not choose to work twice as hard so that the work that is necessary to me being me is done by me. So that what harm I might cause is not shipped off to Other bodies but is internalized and managed right here. So that I do not reproduce the violence that is our culture. This is not a damned choice. This is what is right. This is how to live without destroying life. This is the only ecologically sane way to be human. Living within the limits of my place is how I do not kill myself.

This is — decidedly — not cute.

Apropos of nothing… today is the first 11-hour day in my part of the world. We’ve added more than an hour of sunlight to the day since Candlemas. In less than three weeks, we’ll add another hour. And the light will continue to grow, rapidly until about May Day, then slowly but surely right up until the Summer Solstice — when we’ll turn around and head back inward again… Praise be…

Addendum from the February 27 Daily

After yesterday’s diatribe, I feel rather talked out… but there are a few points that did not get made… somehow…

In all the discussion of capitalism and its discontents, there is one thing that is often brushed away, like an annoying gnat. Capitalism is horrible. We acknowledge that. We know that it is destructive. It is wasteful and exploitative. It is dumb. But we don’t talk about how it exists. We don’t say that we make it. We ignore the glaring fact that we work very hard and completely against biophysical reality to prop up this monstrosity.

Capitalism should be impossible. It should eat away its center until it implodes in a fizzling gasp. It takes more than there is to take. It confers rewards onto increasingly small numbers of people, requiring the complicit efforts of vast numbers of humans, none of whom benefit, most of whom are actively harmed by their complicity. Replicating capitalism should not work. Except that we put so much work into it.

In other words, we do this to our selves.

Capitalism can not function without selves. It can’t exist without an entity that is separable from the harm that capitalism creates, an immaterial self that is not part of this material world nor party to its destruction. We must have selves, preferably transcendent and eternal selves, that will exist in happiness on some other plane, in order to endure an existence in this body that is ruled by this illogical and unlikely economy. Without a self, there is no Other to exploit, to take from, to use for profit. But invent a self and there are no limits to your destructive capacity. Apparently.

Except… live in reality for just a few hours a day — like, say, as a geologist — and you soon see that the self is as highly unlikely as capitalism. Where and how and what is this thing that is inside its own self-proclaimed boundaries? What are boundaries in an interpenetrating world? What does separation mean in the context of the interdependence of life? What is I and Thou and that over there? Where does the self begin and end and what are beginnings and endings in the gentle curvature of reality?

Geology makes it so hard to center any particular thing. It is nigh impossible to be a selfish geologist, never mind a capitalist one. It’s just too much work to maintain that kind of hubris. And we are awed by the enormity of existence revealed in a rock cut, where there is no beginning, no boundary, just rolling fluctuations in time. We realize that we are insignificant children, staring at the intricate workings of the mother that holds us in her hands. And sometimes we sense that we are her children and we are her. But we are never apart.

To be a separable self engaged in capitalism is a-biotic. It is anti-ecological. But it is also pure nonsense. Where did you come from, oh self-made captain of industry? From what spring did you suckle? To whom do you owe your first breath? Or your last? By whose labors did your belly grow so large? Do you have sensible answers to any of these questions? And if you don’t, then what logic explains you?

When we acknowledge life in its completeness, we know that there is no center. There is no specialness sucking up all the light and air. No privileged state to state rules for commoners. There is no exploitation when there is no object and no abuser. So know this… when you bow to this system, you are exploiting you — and you are enabling the abuse.

I believe in geology. I believe in life. I believe in an absence of defined boundaries. But my anarchy does not imply an absence of rules, only an absence of rulers. Most particularly, an absence of hierarchies that separate out the rulers from the ruled. Those who make the rules and benefit thereby over those who follow the rules and bear the burden. I believe in social wholeness not stratification. Stratification is only interesting in rock layers, and then only from the stories found in their relationships with each other. No granite ever lorded over the shale. What nonsense! Even rocks know it is all a cycle of being, from one to another, none more special than any other.

And then you step into the garden… Where can the self be found in all that riotous growth? Who is the garden and who the gardener? And is there ever a functional division?

Nope… just a seasonal round of breathing in winter’s rest and breathing out summer’s release. A cooperation of green bodies.

I do like collective nouns. These are the words we use in recognition of community. A pod of whales. A parliament of owls. A grave grove of oaks. One being composed of many and nary a self to cloud comprehension.

You see, I am an animist. I see the sacred life in all things. But in no thing have I ever found a self. I-am is an illusion, an illness spawned by human want. In this world there is only We, with diffusion in all directions. Perhaps there is a plane of separable and hierarchical selves out there elsewhere. If there is, I do not want to go there. I hope never to feel such numbing and bewildering isolation. But that is not this world, and all such agony is stupid self-imposed delusion.

Which brings me back to capitalism… we do this to ourselves… we could also… just… not

©Elizabeth Anker 2024

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.